Confehr: Showing the firefighters the love of understanding

Friday, June 11, 2010

Understanding one another is, I think, at the root of all good relationships. So, when one of the fire chiefs asked whether I understood their operations and aggravation arising from budget cuts as proposed by county commissioners on the budget committee, my response was yes, and here's how and why.

In the 1980s when another financial crisis dampened our nation's economy and car loan interest rates had been 20 percent, volunteer fire departments in Franklin County were hurting for support. At the same time, insurance costs were increasing and Winchester's mayor knew it was impossible to stop the city fire chief from going beyond the town line even though the city's liability insurance underwriter didn't want to pay for accidents out of town.

Mutual aid agreements were re-examined and funding options considered. Ultimately, the county property tax rate was increased all across the county, but it wasn't raised as much for owners of property in municipalities that funded fire departments. Sewanee has a different situation since it's an unincorporated university town, but it's not relevant to worry about that when comparing there to here.

The difference between the county's property tax rate for property in municipalities compared to the rate charged elsewhere in the county became the revenue stream for rural fire departments.

Now, it is clear county commissioners here don't want to raise property taxes. There is a sales tax referendum Aug. 5, but that new revenue can't be plugged into the next budget because voters might defeat it.

And, currently, there's a sense among Marshall County's rural firefighters that county commissioners don't understand some basics.

Two of them are:

* Homeowners' insurance policies, required by mortgage lenders, have rates based on the quality of fire protection service. The Insurance Services Office (ISO) rates fire departments on a scale of 0-10. Ten is the best. Insurance bills are lower with really good fire departments. People pay a great deal of money for fire insurance if the closest fire hall is poorly rated.

* Fire trucks at rural fire halls in Marshall County are owned by the fire departments. Those vehicle titles are in the name of the departments, but through a legal artifice, the titles are held by the county so a blanket insurance policy can be obtained to hold rates down. Part of the county's support for the fire departments is insurance coverage and it's more complicated than that.

Some, maybe all, commissioners understand those two points. Some firefighters probably don't believe they do, and they'd probably point out other complexities.

Public safety is clearly a government responsibility, but in our personal lives we make decisions that conflict with that standard. Risks might be taken because of poverty, different values, or just plain old poor judgment.

Five Points Fire Chief L.L. McClure had a good point Tuesday night when he asked if the chiefs might meet with the commissioners. Communication is a good thing. Maybe a separate meeting will emerge from the monthly meeting of the commission on June 28.